West stumbles as China flexes military muscle


December 8, 2013

Aside from Japan, South Korea, and Australia, the West’s response to China’s imposition of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea has been limp. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden voiced the United States’ “deep concern” over China’s actions before boarding his plane for trip to Japan and China. But, as the New York Times reported last week, Biden stopped “short of a demand that Beijing reverse itself.”

That is something that America’s chief ally Japan, which claims control over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands that lie at the heart of this dispute, has insisted upon. Much to Japan’s chagrin, the U.S. airlines also quickly conceded to China’s demands to notify them when crossing the disputed airspace.

The U.S. is clearly trying to de-escalate tensions, but from a position of weakness – an administration beleaguered on all fronts at home hardly conveys strength abroad. Sending Biden proves just how weak President Barack Obama has become and that Secretary of State John Kerry has little time for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Asian pivot.

The U.S. is doing the minimum to reassure key allies, showing some strength by sending unarmed B-52s into the contested airspace, but also treading gingerly not wanting to annoy the Chinese dragon.

Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, has voiced his own “concerns” on the matter and called on both countries to lower the temperature, but that came only nine days after the crisis began. Like most other Western countries, including many of those who simply chosen to remain silent, Canada has huge economic stakes in its relationship with China.

At least we have not followed Britain’s path. Prime Minister David Cameron did not even raise the issue —at least not publicly — during his much-publicized trip last week to Beijing, the purpose of which was to drum up trade and investment for Britain’s ailing economy while also making a strong pitch for a China-EU free trade pact. To drive the point home that China is the UK’s new best friend, Cameron’s public message on returning home was to tell British schools they should start teaching Mandarin.

Not surprisingly, there has been ne’er a peep out of Paris, Berlin or Brussels.

The reality is that no one really wants to pick a fight with China these days. As Australia learned abruptly the Chinese do not welcome messages of caution from “lessers,” particularly when they are standing toe to toe with big boys and counter any threat with little concern about where it will all lead. It’s a dangerous game of chicken.

If the islands had any value, the dispute would be understandable. The fact that they have no tangible significance means that more “bad” may come by accident than by design.

If there ever was a time for quiet but firm diplomacy, this is it. Not exactly something for which the ever agreeable Vice-President or the newly appointed US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, are necessarily the best emissaries.

China has once again shown itself to be mercurial and dangerously unpredictable. There were genuine hopes that the country’s new leadership would avoid the missteps of its predecessors as it embarked on its new charm offensive. However, those early smiles have faded. China’s leaders are baring their teeth and rattling the cage again. And it is not just their assertion of sovereignty over the skies in the China Sea that is troublesome. It is also China’s use of its navy and fishing fleets to assert control over bits of coral and rocky outcrops in a sea that it wants to call its own.

The irony is that China clearly wants to be a serious and engaged member of the global economy through its membership in the World Trade Organization and its extensive trading and investment ties with the rest of the world that are so vital to its prosperity as the world’s greatest trading state. China’s also desperately wants to be accorded the respect it feels it deserves as one of the world’s great powers.

However, respect comes from playing by the rules, not twisting or violating them.

To be sure a rising tide of nationalism (by no means limited to China), deep-rooted historical animosities, and competing claims that have a murky provenance lie at the heart of China’s dispute with Japan and its other Asian neighbors.

If alliance solidarity means anything, this is not a time for the West to vacillate.

The West should be sending a firm and unambiguous message to Beijing that there is only one way to resolve territorial disputes in the modern age and that is through international law and the adjudication mechanisms available under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. But that may also be asking too much.

China is doing what it is doing because it sees the West as leaderless, divided and rudderless and is probably right in that belief. All we can hope is that an accident will be avoided because there is neither the diplomatic fortitude nor consensus to prevent it. We can also hope that commercial considerations will ultimately weigh as heavily in Beijing as the smog currently engulfing that city.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. He led the Canadian delegation in concluding negotiations of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement.